Saturday, April 30, 2011

New safety laws for herbal medicines

It is absurd to have lower standards for herbal medicine than for ethical medicines

New laws come into force on Saturday that are aimed at protecting consumers from potentially harmful herbal medicines. Under a European directive, herbal medicines on sale in shops will have to be registered. Products must meet safety, quality and manufacturing standards, and come with information outlining possible side-effects.

The Medicines and Health care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there had been 211 applications for approval, with 105 granted so far and the rest still under consideration. Some herbal practitioners fear the move could threaten their businesses.

Commonly used ingredients already registered include echinacea, used against colds, St John's wort, used by some for depression and anxiety, and valerian, claimed as a natural remedy for insomnia. Research conducted for the MHRA in 2009 showed that 26% of UK adults had taken a herbal medicine in the past two years.

The agency said it is hoping to promote a more cautious approach to using herbal medicines after the study findings found that more than half of people – 58% – believe the products are safe because they are natural.

The agency said there had been a number of health alerts over unlicensed herbal medicines over the years. In February the MHRA issued a warning about the herbal weight loss product Herbal Flos Lonicerae (Herbal Xenicol) Natural Weight Loss Formula after tests showed it contained more than twice the prescribed dose of a banned substance.


Life-extending prostate cancer pill could be available in a year

A pill that gives men with advanced prostate cancer an extra four months of life has come a step closer to being approved for use in Britain.

Zytiga is a hormonal drug that cuts off the source of testosterone, which makes prostate cancer cells grow. Standard hormone treatments for prostate cancer block production of male hormones in the testes, but recent research shows that tumours can produce their own supply, as does the adrenal gland. Zytiga blocks all testosterone generation.

It can be used in up to 80 per cent of patients with aggressive drug-resistant prostate cancer who have run out of options after exhausting a range of anti-hormonal therapies and chemotherapies.

The drug is not yet available for use on the NHS, but makers Johnson & Johnson have applied for licensing approval in Europe that could be granted by the end of this year. That approval looks more likely after U.S. watchdogs at the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to the drug there nearly two months earlier than expected, following its success in trials.

A trial on almost 800 patients in 13 countries found those taking the drug combined with conventional steroid treatment survived for about 15 months, compared with 11 months on steroids alone. The study was cut short so all patients could be given Zytiga – clinical name abiraterone acetate – after independent monitors determined a clear survival benefit.

Around 250,000 men in the UK are living with prostate cancer, with 37,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It is the biggest cancer killer after lung cancer, with 10,000 men dying from the disease each year.

Zytiga was discovered by British scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research. Professor Johann de Bono, of the ICR said: ‘This news will be incredibly important to prostate cancer patients and their families.’


Friday, April 29, 2011

McDonalds to the rescue

When Suzanne Franklin fell pregnant, she was at a loss as to how she would eat for two. The 23-year-old had suffered from extreme food allergies for year from eggs to dairy and fruit and vegetables.

Doctors warned her that pregnancy would make the symptoms worse but that antihistamines could harm her baby.

But Ms Franklin knew she wasn’t allergic to McDonald’s burgers - so she ate a Big Mac burger everyday throughout her pregnancy. Any worries about her unusual diet affecting her baby’s growth were unfounded - as she has given birth to her own 10Ib 2oz whopper.

Miss Franklin said: ‘All those burgers definitely didn’t do him any harm. It was the only thing I could eat safely during my pregnancy, so I just lived on them. ‘When Harry was born and the doctors told me that he weighed over 10Ib’s I just couldn’t believe it. ‘I was worried that I wasn’t getting enough nutrients for me and the baby - but Harry definitely proved that wrong.

‘The doctor who scanned me at 20 weeks told me that I must be doing something right as he was so big and healthy - but I never expected him to be that big and neither did they. The doctors expected him to be around 8Ibs.’

Miss Franklin, who lives with partner Paul Wilson, 27, a dental technician, in Dudley, West Midlands, has suffered from extreme food allergies since she was two-years-old. She said: ‘I ate a chocolate covered peanut when I was two years old and it sent my body into anaphylactic shock and I had to be rushed straight to hospital. Doctors told my parents I was lucky to be alive.’

Miss Franklin was diagnosed with a severe nut allergy and she had to carry an adrenaline pen around with her at all times.

But it wasn’t until she was 15 that her allergies became more extreme. She ate a kiwi fruit and her throat closed up, leaving her unable to breathe. She said: ‘I couldn’t breathe, but luckily mum could see what was happening to me and she called an ambulance straight away.

‘But then a week later the same thing happened when I was eating a strawberry and tests showed that I was allergic to eggs, tea, alcohol, rice, oils, fish, and all fruit and vegetables.

‘I became absolutely terrified of eating, as I just seemed to be allergic to everything. For weeks I just lived on bread and water, and I dropped two stone in weight.’

But Miss Franklin discovered she could eat Big Mac burgers - without cheese or salad, so she began to eat them most days.

She was so allergic to other foods that she had to cook dinner separately from her partner and store all her food in airtight containers in the fridge.

She said: ‘I was just desperate to keep eating so that the baby could grow, so I just forced down burger after burger each day.

‘Paul would eat a salad, and I would just look on enviously. The lack of nutrients in my diet meant that I picked up one cold after another, but I was advised not to take any multivitamins in case they triggered an allergic reaction too.

‘I wondered if eating so many burgers would affect the baby, but luckily my 20 week scan showed that the baby was developing fine. It was such a relief.’

By the time Miss Franklin went into labour on Christmas Day, she had gained four stone. She said: ‘My bump had just kept growing and growing - Paul kept joking that it was all the Big Mac’s I was eating.’

Harry was born at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley, weighing a whopping 10Ib2. Miss Franklin added: ‘I just couldn’t believe it when the doctors told me what he weighed.’

Baby Harry is now three months old - and he has shown signs of inheriting Miss Franklin’s allergies too. He is already allergic to seven different types of milk.

She said: ‘I had hoped that Harry wouldn’t be allergic to all the foods that I am, but it looks as though he may have inherited some of them. But at least he won’t be allergic to burgers.'


Five-minute test could detect autism in babies at the age of one

A five-minute screening test could help detect autism in babies when they are just 12-months-old, U.S researchers said today.

The developmental disorder begins in childhood and persist throughout adulthood, but often isn't picked up until youngsters are older. 'The benefit of this study is children get into treatment much earlier than they would otherwise,' said study author Karen Pierce of the University of California, San Diego. It is the first to show that a simple screening tool could be used to detect autism in infants.

Autism, a complex and mysterious brain disorder, strikes one in 100 children in the UK according to the NHS. It affects four times as many boys as girls. It is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, communication and understanding other people's emotions and behavior.

It is usually first diagnosed in early childhood, around the age of three, and recent studies have shown that the earlier that children are diagnosed and treated, the better they do. 'There is extensive evidence that early therapy can have a positive impact on the developing brain,' said Professor Pierce.

'The opportunity to diagnose and thus begin treatment for autism around a child's first birthday has enormous potential to change outcomes for children affected with the disorder.'

For the study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Professor Pierce and colleagues put together a network of 137 paediatricians, who systematically started screening all babies at their one-year check up.

As part of the screening program, parents answered a survey, rating their babies on questions such as 'When your child plays with toys, does he/she look at you to see if you are watching?' or 'Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?'

Any baby who failed the screening was referred to university's autism centre for more testing. These children were re-tested every six months until age 3, when they were likely to show signs of autism.

Of the more than 10,000 infants, 184 failed the initial screening, and 75 per cent of these children ended up with some problem.

Of the total, 32 of the children have received an autism diagnosis, 56 had a language delay, nine were developmentally delayed and 36 were categorized as having some other issue.

After the screening program, all toddlers diagnosed with autism or developmental delay, and 89 per cent of those with language delay were referred for behavioral therapy around the age 17 months. On average, these children began receiving treatment at 19 months.

Dr Lisa Gilotty from the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said: 'Those kids were getting treatment who otherwise may not have been seen for treatment until age 3 or later.'

Dr Chrystal de Freitas, a paediatrician who participated in the study, said parents who got the screening paid more attention to their child's development, and it helped prepare some for potentially bad news.

'In addition to giving me the opportunity to do a more thorough evaluation, it allowed parents time to process the information that their child might have a development delay or autism - a message no parent wants to hear,' she said.

Professor Pierce said surveys of the doctors before the program showed that most had not been screening infants in any systematic way for autism. But after the study, 96 per cent said they have continued using the screening tool.

Dr Gilotty said the screening test still needs to be confirmed through other studies, but it proves that it is possible to systematically screen babies for autism in a way that does not put too much of a burden on paediatricians.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

FDA intruding itself between doctors and their patients

For what gain?

U.S. health officials unveiled Tuesday a new plan to try to curb misuse of extended-release and long-acting opioid pain killers such as OxyContin, morphine and methadone.

The new Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) is part of a larger multi-agency initiative announced Tuesday by the White House to reduce overall prescription drug abuse in the United States.

"This new REMS will provide tools to doctors and other prescribers for appropriate pain management to reduce risks and at the same time preserve access for patients and appropriate management of pain for those suffering from moderate to severe pain," said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that launched the new program.

For now, the initiative will be limited to extended-release and long-acting products, which, Woodcock said, "have a much greater risk than immediate-release because they contain more medicine." She did not rule out the possibility that the approach could be expanded to include immediate-release drugs in the future.

Right now, the action affects 16 companies that make both branded and generic products. The products affected are known under their generic names as hydromorphone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone, oxymorphone, transdermal fentanyl and transdermal buprenorphine.

According to Woodcock, about 23 million prescriptions are dispensed each year for extended-release and long-acting opioids, which represented about 10% of the opioid market in 2009. But, abuse and misuse is also extensive, with the FDA estimating that 33 million Americans aged 12 and older used such a drug for non-medical purposes in 2007, up from 29 million people in 2002.
Some 50,000 emergency room visits in 2006 were related to opioids, officials said.

"This is a large and growing problem and, despite a number of efforts over the years, it continues to grow," Woodcock said. "It's clear we have a huge problem on our hands."

One of the main components of the new FDA program will be educating doctors and other prescribers on proper ways to prescribe opioids, as well as how to identify appropriate patients for these drugs.

"If a prescriber has a concern that a patient might unintentionally or intentionally misuse the drug, they need to know how to spot these individuals," Woodcock said. Doctors will also get materials on how to educate their patients, not only on proper use of opioids but also on proper storage and disposal.

Manufacturers will be required to use one central system to provide these educational materials, Woodcock said. And the FDA will monitor company-generated literature to make sure it isn't promotional but is effective, she added.

Companies have 120 days to issue a draft REMS and Woodcock hoped matters will be completed by early 2012.

"In the meantime, doctors should be prescribing opioids as they have been doing and we hope they thoroughly discuss risks and benefits with their patients," Woodcock said. "People taking opioids should continue to take them as directed and, if they have concerns, should consult a health-care professional."


Lithium 'slows development of Alzheimer's'

A small study but encouraging. Does a remnote bureaucrat know better than your doctor what you need?

Lithium, used for decades to treat mania and depression, could also help slow the advance of Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published today

A trial of 41 people over 60 years of age with mild cognitive impairment, a condition that often leads to full-blown Alzheimer's, found that the rate of mental decline was lower in the half given 150mg of lithium daily, compared to those given a placebo.

While all participants showed a decline in memory function and attention tasks over the year, the rate of decline among those on lithium was significantly less. Levels of a biomarker for Alzheimer's disease called phospho-tau concentrations also rose more slowly in those on lithium.

Psychiatrists believe this is because it "may hamper mechanisms that lead to the formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles", microscopic brain structures linked to the most common form of dementia.

Dr Orestes Forlenza, who led the research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, said: "This study supports the idea that giving lithium to a person who is at risk of Alzheimer’s disease may have a protective effect, and slow down the progression of memory loss to dementia."

Professor Allan Young, a psychiatrist from Imperial College London, described the study as "encouraging" - and particularly interesting because no pharmaceutical company has a patent on lithium, meaning it is very cheap to prescribe.

He added: "This trial adds to the increasing evidence that lithium may have beneficial effects on the brain and begs to be replicated in further randomised trials."

But Rebecca Wood, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said it was "too soon to draw any firm conclusions" because of the small study size.

Dr Anne Corbett, research manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "We need more, larger clinical trials to test existing drugs like lithium if we are to find better treatments for people with Alzheimer’s.

"Yet such trials are very expensive. We need greater investment in this area in order to help us develop better treatments for people with this devastating condition."


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How spending too much time online 'can increase the chances of your teenager taking drugs'

The authors believe that screen-time CAUSES risky behaviour. That may not be so. For instance: Maybe socially isolated kids spend more time online and socially isolated people are more likely to look for illicit "thrills".

So we see yet more epidemiologists who think they have a secret fountain of knowledge

Spending time online increases the likelihood of a teenager taking drugs or having unprotected sex, it has been claimed. Research revealed those who are regularly glued to their screens are far more likely to engage in risky behaviour than their peers.

The researchers from the Queen's University in Canada found that young adults who logged the most hours on their computers were 50 per cent more likely to engaged in a cluster of six 'multi-risk behaviours.' These included smoking, drunkenness, cannabis and illegal drug use, having unprotected sex and not using seat belts.

Research author Valerie Carson, said: 'This research is based on social cognitive theory, which suggests that seeing people engaged in a behaviour is a way of learning that behaviour. 'Since adolescents are exposed to considerable screen time - over 4.5 hours on average each day - they’re constantly seeing images of behaviours they can then potentially adopt.'

One explanation behind the findings is that a considerable amount of advertising that used to be shown on TV is now being shown on the internet. In addition, computer usage by adolescents has increased considerably in recent years.

'TV and video games have more established protocols in terms of censorship, but Internet protocols aren’t as established,' Ms Carson said. 'Parents can make use of programs that control access to the Internet, but adolescents in this age group are quite savvy about technology and the Internet. 'It’s possible that these types of controls aren’t effective in blocking all undesirable websites.'

The research, recently published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, suggests that future studies should examine the specific content adolescents are being exposed to in order to help strengthen current screen time guidelines for youth.


Hepatitis C breakthrough: Scientists discover drug that cures MORE patients in LESS time

More hepatitis C patients appear to have been cured in less time by a new drug than in the past 20 years, according to federal health officials. Boceprevir, produced by New Jersey-based Merck & Co, is expected to be recommended by an independent panel on Wednesday to the Food and Drug Administration.

If the drug gets the go-ahead, it will be the culmination of more than 15 years of research to find a better therapy for a virus that infects over three million people in the U.S.

Celebrities who accidentally picked up the virus include Pamela Anderson, The Last Samurai film star Ken Watanabe and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick.

On Thursday Vertex Pharmaceuticals will bring a similar drug called telaprevir before the FDA's panel.

Both tablets, which work by blocking the enzyme protease, which allows the hepatitis virus to reproduce, have the potential to rack up over a billion dollars in annual sales. They differ from the older medications - ribavirin pills and interferon-alpha injections - that are designed to boost the immune system.

Like HIV drugs, the new pills from Merck and Vertex will be prescribed as part of a cocktail with the two older drugs to help lower viral levels. The current two-drug treatment for the virus cures only about 40 percent of people and causes side effects like nausea, fatigue and vomiting.

But boceprevir has been shown to boost cure rates to between approximately 60 and 65 per cent when combined with the older drugs.

FDA scientists said the two studies submitted by Merck showed patients had undetectable virus levels six months, cutting the standard treatment time in half. But the FDA said in its review that some late-responding patients may need to take the drugs for eight months to eliminate the virus.

The agency also suggested that other groups of patients should receive longer therapy, including African Americans who had a cure rate 15 to 25 per cent lower than other racial groups.

African Americans make up more than one in five of hepatitis C carriers in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FDA said the primary side effect with Merck's drug was anaemia, or weakness and fatigue caused by a lack of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. It questioned the strength of Merck's evidence that boceprevir works for patients who have already tried and failed treatment with the two older drugs.

The FDA often follows the guidance of its panels, though it is not required to do so. The agency is scheduled to make a final decision on the drug in May.

Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver transplants and it kills about 12,000 U.S. patients a year, a number expected to triple by 2030 as baby boomers succumb to the disease. The disease is often associated with users of illegal injectable drugs like heroin, but it was also be picked up from blood transfusions before 1992, when testing of the blood supply began.

Most people with hepatitis C don't even know they have the virus until years later when liver damage has occurred. 'The liver has a huge capacity of going about its business until it fails,' said Dr. Eliav Barr, Merck's vice president for infectious diseases. 'So you have chronic damage that gets worse and worse but you yourself can't tell until a fair bit of damage is done.'

Merck was the first company to market a drug for hepatitis C in 1991 when it launched interferon-alpha. Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1989 by a former Merck scientist.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anti-BPA packaging laws jeopardize public health

In public policy, bad ideas have an unfortunate tendency to spread. Lawmakers in several states are considering legislation similar to a bill passed last week in Maryland that may actually increase food-borne illnesses.

The Maryland legislation (SB151 and HB4) bans infant formula and baby food packaging that contains more than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) of the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). The standard is so stringent that it essentially bans BPA in these packages—for no good reason. In fact, regulatory bodies around the world have found BPA levels safe up to 3,000 parts per billion.

This anti-BPA legislation is based on environmental activists’ wrongheaded claims that BPA poses an unreasonable risk to human health—specifically to children—but the overwhelming body of research suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, as more of these misguided bans succeed, policymakers are likely to begin targeting BPA use in all types of food packaging, as several bills already introduced in Congress do.

Ironically, these policies threaten to undermine food safety because BPA is used to make resins that line metal cans and other packaging to prevent the development of dangerous pathogens and other contamination. And there are few good alternatives should lawmakers eventually ban BPA. In other words, misguided bans on use of BPA in food packaging could have serious, adverse public health implications.


From breast cancer to obesity, how your genes count more than your lifestyle

A rare nod to reality below

Researchers recently discovered that the age at which a girl starts having periods is mainly influenced by when her mother started menstruating.

Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research at the University of London discovered there was a 57 per cent likelihood a girl would begin menstruating within three months of the date her mother started. It had been thought that diet, particularly eating a lot of meat, played a greater role than genes.
Scientists found there was a 57 per cent likelihood a girl would begin menstruating within three months of the date her mother started

Scientists found there was a 57 per cent likelihood a girl would begin menstruating within three months of the date her mother started

So what other aspects of a girl’s health are controlled by genetics? Could determining a woman’s health prospects be as simple as checking her mother’s medical records?

We asked leading experts how likely you are to inherit your mother’s body, mind and health.


GENETIC LINK: 70 to 80 per cent risk you’ll inherit them from your mother, says Dr Kate Henry, associate professor of neurology at New York University.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? Researchers recently discovered a flawed gene, called tresk, could cause migraines. If this gene doesn’t work properly, environmental factors (such as noise, cheese and caffeine) can more easily trigger pain centres in the brain that cause migraines. When the defective gene in migraine patients was under-active it caused a severe headache.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? ‘Triggers can be unpredictable, but identifying them will help to control your condition,’ says Demelza Burn of Migraine Action.

Many migraine sufferers are sensitive to foods such as chocolate, coffee, cheese, citrus and red wine. Hormones can also play a role — the rise and fall of oestrogen and progesterone during the menstrual cycle can cause migraines.


GENETIC LINK: 3 per cent of UK breast cancer cases are inherited.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? ‘Women who are carriers of the mutated gene BRCA1 or BRCA2 are more likely to inherit the condition,’ says Jackie Harris, a clinical nurse specialist for Breast Cancer Care. ‘If a blood relative — male or female — had breast cancer at an early age, you are more at risk.’

Most women with these mutated genes will develop cancer at a very young age, says Dr Elizabeth Rapley, a cancer geneticist from the Institute of Cancer Research.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Genetic screening is offered to women with a family history of breast cancer (where one or more close blood relatives have had the disease). If you carry the gene, you can be closely monitored.

Some women opt for early mastectomies to reduce their chances of developing cancer.

Hormone replacement therapies and taking the combined contraceptive pill can increase the risk in some women, as can being obese, particularly after the menopause, says Jackie Harris.

Women who drink and smoke excessively also face increased risks. According to Cancer Research UK, smoking is responsible for more than a quarter of all cancer deaths in Britain, while even moderate drinking has been shown to raise the risk of breast cancer by 7 per cent for each single unit of alcohol per day, the charity reports.


GENETIC LINK: Up to 50 per cent.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? ‘The ease with which you develop muscle tone and improve fitness is highly inherited,’ says Louise Sutton, head of the Carnegie Centre for Sports Performance at Leeds Metropolitan University. ‘It’s often said that if you want to win an Olympic medal, you should choose your parents well.’

A study in the International Journal Of Obesity found that while we all need physical activity to build muscle, people with ‘muscular genes’ require far less exercise to achieve the same level of fitness.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? The Government’s recommended 30 minutes of activity per day, five days a week, will help to keep you healthy, but won’t improve fitness significantly.

‘You need to do 30-45 minutes of moderate to high-intensity aerobic activity, such as running, swimming or cycling, preferably with bursts of speed, on at least three days a week,’ Sutton says. ‘Try to include resistance exercises, such as squats and lunges, plus some stretching.’


GENETIC LINK: 10 per cent risk you’ll inherit it, several studies have found — including one by the US National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? Mental illness — including depression, post-natal depression and bipolar disorder — is known to run in families.

Scientists have isolated a mutant gene, called tryptophan hydroxylase-2, which might play a role in depressive illnesses. It starves the brain of serotonin, the feel-good hormone that regulates moods using chemical messages. A direct genetic link has yet to be proven.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Factors such as fatigue, stress and alcohol intake can increase the risk of developing depression, says Emer O’Neill, chief executive of the charity Depression Alliance. If you do inherit one of the genes linked to depression, there’s no guarantee you will suffer from the illness, O’Neill adds.


Only 4 per cent of girls with normal-weight mothers were obese, compared to 41 per cent with fat mothers

Only 4 per cent of girls with normal-weight mothers were obese, compared to 41 per cent with fat mothers

GENETIC LINK: A UK study found people with two copies of a fat version of the gene FTO had a 70 per cent higher risk of obesity than those with no copies.

Another study found only 4 per cent of girls with normal-weight mothers were obese, compared to 41 per cent with fat mothers.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? People carrying one copy of the fat FTO variant had a 30 per cent increased risk of being obese compared to a person with no copies.

Those carrying two copies of the variant were on average 3kg (6.6lb) heavier than a similar person with no gene copies.

Other studies, including one published in the International Journal Of Obesity in 2009, suggest a strong link between mother and daughter and father and son obesity — but no link across the gender divide.

Genetics affect body shape too.

‘Apple shapes have a stronger genetic link than pear-shaped or thin ones,’ says Louise Sutton.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Calorie and fat-laden diets are partly to blame for rising rates of obesity in children, but so are increased levels of inactivity.

TV and computer time should be rationed to less than two hours a day, recommends Sutton.


GENETIC LINK: If your mother had it, you’re up to 50 per cent more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, which occurs when — in confusion — the immune system attacks the body causing inflammation, which ruins the joint lining and cartilage.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK, says inherited genes don’t directly cause the disease, but can increase your likelihood of developing it.

‘We have only identified some of the genes responsible for rheumatoid arthritis and people often don’t know if they are carrying them,’ Silman says. ‘However, even if they do carry these genes, it’s no guarantee they’ll get the disease.’

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in people who smoke, eat a lot of red meat or drink a lot of caffeine, Silman says.

‘Viral infections can be a trigger for the disease, but it is less common in people who have a high vitamin C intake from fruit and vegetables.’


GENETIC LINK: 70-85 per cent risk you will have a premature menopause if your mother did.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? One in 20 women begins the menopause before 46 (the average age is 51) and four genes, working together, appear to raise the risk significantly, say researchers at the University of Exeter. Studies on sisters found the age they reached the menopause was 85 per cent down to genes.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Treatment for cancer and surgery on your ovaries can trigger an early menopause. Nothing can prevent it starting, but there is lots you can do to ease the symptoms, from herbal remedies to HRT. All of these should be discussed with your GP.


GENETIC LINK: 3-5 per cent increased risk you will get dementia and an estimated 30-50 per cent greater risk you will suffer early-onset Alzheimer’s if your mother did.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? The Alzheimer’s Society says researchers have identified genes that predispose people to different forms of dementia.

‘In a small number of families — accounting for one in 1,000 cases of Alzheimer’s and mainly those that start in early life — there is a clear inheritance of dementia, due to three genes,’ says Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society.

‘However, with late-onset Alzheimer’s, which occurs over the age of 65 and accounts for 99 per cent of cases in Britain, only one gene is known to be influential.’

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check from age 35 onwards can reduce your risk of dementia by up to 20 per cent, Sutherland says.


GENETIC LINK: Up to 20 per cent greater if your mother had a heart attack or chest pain due to blocked arteries, found several studies.

WHAT'S PASSED ON? A recent Oxford University study found women whose mothers suffered strokes were at a greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The study found the inherited vascular disease would affect the coronary artery in the heart and the cerebral artery in the brain.

However, exactly why a mother’s history of stroke plays a role in their daughters’ heart attacks is not known.

Researchers said it was not clear whether genes or environmental factors (i.e. a daughter copying her mother’s unhealthy eating habits) played the larger role.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Lifestyle is important, so maintaining a healthy weight and diet low in saturated fat and salt will help, as will reducing alcohol consumption and not smoking.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Statins for pregnant women?

This is a very worrying proposal. Statins have severe side-effects. Damage to the unborn would be a real possibility. And since some of the side-effects are mental, the damage might not be immediately obvious. This could make thalidomide look like a picnic in comparison

Scientists believe that statins, taken by millions of older Britons to reduce their cholesterol levels, can help reduce the severity of pre-eclampsia.

If the world’s first full clinical trial is successful, it could provide the first simple and effective treatment of a complication that affects 70,000 pregnancies a year in Britain, killing up to 10 women and 1,000 unborn babies.

Prof Asif Ahmed, who is leading the study at the University of Edinburgh, said: “If we are successful, and I am very optimistic that we will be, this treatment will transform clinical management of women with pre-eclampsia. “This is the first stage but I am sure that within the next five to seven years, the type of statin used in the trial will be on the prescription pad. “It will be a great breakthrough not only for mothers and babies in our country but also in the developing world where there is a chronic need for cheaper therapies.”

Pre-eclampsia leads to high blood pressure in pregnancy and in severe cases can lead to the woman suffering kidney and liver damage or their unborn baby being stillborn.

About one in 100 expectant mothers in Britain suffers from a particularly dangerous early-onset form, for which the only treatment is delivering their babies prematurely. But research has suggested that two proteins linked to inducing the condition can be controlled through the use of statins.

The new trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, will involve 128 pregnant women who have been diagnosed with early-onset pre-eclampsia. Those given statins will be monitored to see if the drugs lower their levels of one of the proteins, known as soluble flt-1. This would likely make their condition less severe and so reduce the need for their babies to be delivered early.

Despite researchers’ confidence that the trial will lead to a breakthrough in clinical management of pre-eclampsia, they stress that pregnant women should not yet start asking doctors to prescribe them statins.


Easter note: Late dispatch from the Quebec/Vermont border front of the Kinder Egg wars. . .

I am looking this bright Easter morn at a Department of Homeland Security “Custody Receipt for Seized Property and Evidence”. Late last night, crossing the Quebec/Vermont border, my children had two boxes of “Kinder Eggs” (“Est. Dom. Value $7.50″) confiscated by Customs & Border Protection.

Don’t worry, it’s for their own safety. I had no idea that the United States is the only nation on the planet (well, okay, excepting North Korea and Saudi Arabia and one or two others) to ban Kinder Eggs. According to the CBP:

Kinder Chocolate Eggs are hollow milk chocolate eggs about the size of a large hen’s egg usually packaged in a colorful foil wrapper. They are a popular treat and collector’s item during holiday periods in various countries around the world, including those in Europe, South America and even Canada. A toy within the egg is contained in an oval-shaped plastic capsule. The toy requires assembly and each egg contains a different toy. Many of the toys that have been tested by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the past were determined to present a choking hazard for young children.

And yet oddly enough generations of European and Latin American children remain unchoked. Gotta love that “even Canada”, by the way: Is that an implied threat that Kinder Egg consumption is incompatible with participation in NORAD or membership of NAFTA?

The Food and Drug Administration has issued an import alert for Kinder Eggs, because they are a confectionery product with a non-nutritive object imbedded in it. As in years past, CBP, the Food and Drug Administration and CPSC work in close collaboration to ensure the safety of imported goods by examining, sampling and testing products that may present such import safety hazards. Last year, CBP officers discovered more than 25,000 of these banned chocolate eggs. More than 2,000 separate seizures were made of this product.

Let’s see – CBP, FDA, CPSC. I’m impressed it takes a mere three agencies from the vast alphabet soup of federal regulation to keep us safe from the menace of confectionery products with non-nutritive embeds.

As Janet Napolitano would say, the system worked. I hope America’s chocolate soldiers are enjoying their seized eggs this Easter.

Bonus prediction: What’s the betting that the first jihadist to weaponize a Kinder Egg makes it on to the plane?

PS My kids asked the CBP seizure squad if they could eat the chocolate in front of the border guards while the border guards held on to the toys to prevent any choking hazard – and then, having safely consumed the chocolate, take the toys home as a separate item. This request was denied. Could have been worse. Could have been a $300 fine, plus a $250 fee for seized-egg storage.

PPS The real choking hazard is the vise-like grip of government.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Great British five-a-day flop: Despite £4m campaign, number eating correct amount of fruit and veg FALLS

The Government campaign to persuade people to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day has been a multimillion-pound flop. Official statistics show that the number of people meeting the ‘five-a-day’ target actually fell as the campaign went on.

This is despite the fact that over the past five years the Department of Health has spent more than £4million on marketing and advertising for the campaign – and that the total since the campaign was launched in 2002 will be much more than that.

Critics said yesterday that the money squandered was a clear example of nanny-state failure.

Many local primary care trusts have appointed ‘five-a-day’ advisers and run regional campaigns, including leaflet drops and talks. Billboards have been put up in city centres and signs have gone up in supermarkets and doctors’ surgeries.

But between 2006 and 2009, the percentage of adults eating five portions of fruit and veg a day has fallen from 30 per cent to 26 per cent. This equates to a fall from 12.1million to 10.9million, meaning that more than a million fewer people are eating the recommended amount.

The World Health Organisation claims that fruit and vegetables can prevent cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. But last year a major European study found that five a day had little effect on reducing cancer rates.

Government figures show that more than five million children – almost four out of five – eat less than the recommended amounts. The typical amount the average adult eats has fallen slightly from 3.3 portions a day in 2006 to 3.2 three years later.

The number of adults eating no portions, or less than one portion, a day has gone up by 17 per cent, from 3.4million to 3.9million, over the same period.

Rich households are twice as likely to have five a day as those in the poorest households. While 32 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women in the highest-income households meet the target, only 18 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women in the lowest-income households do. In the poorest households, almost half of men and more than a third of women consumed no fruit other than juice.

Official figures, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show the Department of Health has spent £4,167,700 on marketing and advertising for the five-a-day campaign since 2006.

The campaign, which has been endorsed by celebrities such as England cricketers Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles, was launched in 2002. But there are no figures to show how much was spent before 2006, so the department’s total could be double the amount for the last five years. And the figures do not include the amount spent by primary care trusts around the country, which will have pushed it up even higher.

Emma Boon, campaign director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘It’s ridiculous that the Department of Health has spent so much on this failed campaign. ‘Taxpayers want their money to be spent on frontline healthcare, not on bossy people telling us what to eat. Hiring staff specifically to tell us to eat fruit and veg is madness, and these non-jobs must go to save taxpayers’ money. ‘Primary care trusts need to look at the outcomes of initiatives like this and stop thinking that putting more taxpayers’ money in is the solution.’


Hunting Happy

There are people on this earth who hunt down happiness to kill for sport. They know who they are. Were it up to them, they’d suck every drop of joy out of life and replace it with misery. They hate individual freedom. They hate liberty. They hate the American dream. Their mission in life is to stifle your right to pursue happy. The fact that some people among us are actually happy drives them around the bend.

Now one of them is suing McDonald's to stop Happy Meals. That’s right; “McDonald's unfairly uses toys to lure children into its restaurants,” cries the Plaintiff, a mother of two obese kids who beg for Happy Meals. “[Their] advertising violates California consumer protection laws,” she whines. She wants protection from the monster corporation that causes her fat kids to beg for food.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group, is representing her. That doesn’t surprise me. No self respecting attorney at law in his right mind would ever take on such a transparently frivolous case with his own money at stake. Only an organization which advocates for human consumption a diet of recycled cardboard would champion this ridiculous cause.

My humble prediction: this turkey will be dismissed; booted out of court.

But wait a second; if the court won’t let her kill Happy, maybe the politicians will. Happy Meals, and other good stuff, have come under scrutiny lately from public health officials, parents and lawmakers concerned with rising childhood obesity and weak anti-obesity efforts from restaurant operators.

You see, these folks, most of who are obese themselves, think it should be up to the restaurants to keep their kids from getting fat. It’s the restaurant’s responsibility. They ignore the known fact that many normal sized little kids want Happy Meals so they can throw away the boring food but keep the toy.

The Plaintiff here admits that she frequently tells her children "no" when they ask for Happy Meals. Of course she does. The problem is that she doesn’t tell them “no” at the grocery store, the ice cream shop, or the 7-11. She doesn’t tell them “no” at the dinner table, for bedtime snacks, or treats between meals.

She doesn’t tell them “no” enough. So now her kids are obese and she wants to blame it all on McDonald's. If she gets her way, your child will never enjoy a Happy Meal. She wants to take toys and fun away from little kids. She wants to kill Happy.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Big Government talking down to big Australians

The Australian government is bent on making fat people slim in the most condescending way possible. Last month, an incredibly juvenile media campaign was launched to encourage Australians to make healthier lifestyle choices. The “Swap it, Don’t Stop it” campaign is a multimedia extravaganza, featuring television, print and radio ads, an iPhone app and Facebook page.

I feel stupider for receiving healthy lifestyle tips from a simple-minded balloon called Eric. Some pearls of wisdom from the portly blue balloon include swapping “big for small” portions on your plate and “often for sometimes” in regards to naughty treats.

The campaign reaches its nadir with the audacious promise that you can “lose your belly without having to lose out on the things you love.”

Eric doesn’t want to end up with cancer, type-2 diabetes and heart disease, much like a non-balloon person. But diet and exercise is a personal choice and I would be staggered if anyone adopted a healthier lifestyle because the government tells them to.

With the budget bottom-line looking perilous, the taxpayer shouldn’t be funding an enormous health campaign imploring us to swap four scoops of ice-cream for a calorie-light two. It’s an expensive way to inform Australians of the completely obvious.

A utilitarian might rationalise that a costly public health campaign is justified if a healthier public reduces the burden on the government-funded health system. As the saying goes, prevention is cheaper than a cure.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon referred to the cost of obesity when announcing the “Swap it, Don’t Stop it” campaign—claiming that it cost Australia $58.2 billion in 2008 alone. Fat people are not only cardiovascular time-bombs but, according to these figures, economic vandals too.

Roxon’s claiming, in effect, that a healthy society is responsible economic management. But the obese aren’t a great burden on the government’s finances—simply because unhealthy people tend to die prematurely. A healthy pensioner, after all, costs the government more than a dead one.

I’m not saying that a healthier society isn’t an end in itself but that economic considerations shouldn’t be used to justify government health campaigns when all the data isn’t included in their headline-grabbing figures.

The “Swap it, Don’t Stop it” campaign also raises the important issue of whether the government is overreaching, especially when we presently have all the information we need that eating junk food is bad for you and exercise good.

Even the empty-headed understands the virtue of brown bread over white, a regular morning walk and pitfalls of a KFC Double Down burger. There is no information vacuum around these simple lifestyle choices and no such thing as an unwitting glutton.

A constant criticism of Labor is that it doesn’t know what it stands for but I would argue it does.

Since the Rudd government was elected in 2007, Labor has demonstrated an ideological commitment to big government. It’s a uniquely Labor trait for the government to impose itself on the country.

The Labor government suffered from delusions of grandeur in economic management, stimulating the economy in 2008 with malfunctioning pink batts, overpriced school halls and cash handouts for everyone; it intends to build; operate and monopolise a $36 billion national broadband network; it re-regulated the workplace via the Fair Work Act; it imposed a gratuitous new tax on the mining industry without consultation; it hiked taxes on cigarettes and is legislating to deprive smokers the right to choose an aesthetically pleasing brand—for an entirely legal product, mind you; it’s seeking to de-carbonate the economy; and now wants to protect us from ourselves in relation to diet and lazy lifestyles.

Maybe the government should stick to its core functions and leave people with the responsibility to lead relatively healthy lives.

If people want to be gluttons, so be it—they’ll suffer the consequences.

Anyway, few people are going to eat less or exercise more because the government says so, especially when its spokesman is a balloon.


Jab to reverse Alzheimer's: Breakthrough vaccine could be available within two years

Let's hope one of these miracle cures does work eventually

A revolutionary jab that could stop the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease may be available within two years. The vaccine has been proved to halt and even reverse the damage caused to the brain by the mind-robbing condition. Although it would not be a cure, it is regarded as one of the biggest potential breakthroughs in years in the search for Alzheimer’s treatments.

It is one of only two vaccines for the condition to have reached the final stages of testing, known as phase three. This means it has passed initial safety hurdles and been shown to be effective. It is now in the final stages of clinical trials and is being tested on more than 10,000 patients around the world, including hundreds in the UK.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect more than 800,000 Britons, and the number is expected to double in a generation as the population ages.

Existing drugs can delay the progress of Alzheimer’s, but their failure to tackle the underlying cause in the brain means that their effect quickly wears off and the disease soon takes its devastating course.

In contrast, the bapineuzumab jab prevents or even reverses the build-up of amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs the brain in Alzheimer’s, destroying vital connections between cells. It is hoped this will dramatically slow the progress of the disease. In one early test, it cut the number of amyloid plaques by a quarter.

The development of tests which can detect Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages would allow the jab to be given at the first possible opportunity.

This would enable it to save thousands from the most devastating effects of the incurable disease, which leaves sufferers unable to walk, talk and even swallow, making them totally dependent on others.

Although vaccines are traditionally thought of as preventing disease, bapineuzumab is designed as a treatment. Dr David Wilkinson, from Southampton University’s Memory Assessment and Research Centre, was involved in some of the earliest research into Alzheimer’s vaccines in the 1990s.

He said: ‘Hopefully the vaccine will make a big difference to Alzheimer’s treatment. If we can give it early – before major brain impairment is seen – it may have an important part to play. ‘If it can clear amyloid plaques from the brain and we can give it very early in the disease process, it may prevent some of the damage.’

A treatment capable of dramatically slowing the condition’s progress could also have huge financial benefits, with experts estimating that half of the £17billion spent on Alzheimer’s in Britain each year could be saved if patients developed the disease five years later than they do now.

The three drug firms behind the vaccine, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Elan Corporation, are expected to seek marketing approval when testing is completed towards the end of next year.


The jab targets amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs the brain in Alzheimer’s patients. As the clumps of amyloid get bigger, they stop the brain cells from ‘talking’ to each other, disrupting memory, mood and behaviour.

The vaccine contains an antibody that zeroes in on amyloid and tries to flush it out of the body. It is hoped this will dramatically slow the progress of the disease.

Because the vaccine contains the antibody, rather than prompting the immune system to make its own supply, patients would need injections every few months.

However, some experts are unconvinced that amyloid is the key villain in Alzheimer’s, and early tests show that the jab will not help everyone.

The cost of the vaccine is likely to be decided only if drug licensing authorities in the UK and Europe give it the go-ahead, possibly within the next two to three years. It is likely that the treatment for each patient will cost several thousand pounds per year, with patients being given regular injections every few months for the rest of their lives.

Experts stress that there is no guarantee the vaccine will work for everybody.

Dr Wilkinson’s own research shows that getting rid of the amyloid plaques does not always prevent the disease. And tests show that the jab has little effect on patients carrying a gene that raises the odds of the disease.

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the vaccine could be a significant breakthrough if further trials show it not only clears brain deposits but also prevents dementia.

‘It’s too early to tell whether bapineuzumab could benefit people until the results of this trial are known,’ he said. ‘But any new drug that tackles the disease itself has got to be better than what we have at the moment. ‘Existing drugs don’t touch the disease process. They help with the symptoms but not the underlying loss of brain cells. ‘We desperately need to see more treatments being tested if we are to have the best chance of tackling the condition.

Dr Ridley added: ‘This means it’s vital that we invest in more research.’ He said trials had highlighted side-effects in some patients given high doses of the vaccine. Some developed a condition called vasogenic cerebral oedema, a form of swelling in the brain.

Professor Clive Ballard, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘Finding the right vaccine would be a life-changing matter for people living with Alzheimer’s.

‘However, this is early days and a substantial amount of research is needed. ‘Dementia research is desperately underfunded and to make the breakthroughs we need, we must invest now.’

The jab is one of several that are under development that could provide a potential bonanza for drug companies around the world.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Rubbishy acrylamide scare still rumbling on

I think I said all that needs to be said on it 6 years ago. Its just another way of attacking things that are popular -- pure attention-seeking

A chemical which causes cancer has been found in a huge range of foods including bread, crisps and baby food. Scientists have identified high levels in thousands of cooked and processed products.

The substance, acrylamide, has been linked to several types of cancer including bowel, bladder and kidney, and is known to cause infertility and loss of muscle control.

Scientists have known since 2002 that the chemical exists in certain products and have urged the food industry to reduce levels.

But a major study by the European Union has confirmed that there are still large amounts in a range of items including chips, instant coffee, bread, biscuits, crisps, breakfast cereals and baby food.

Experts are now urging food producers to take stronger action, and are advising the public to cut down on processed food and eat as much fresh produce as possible.

Scientists do not know exactly what causes acrylamide to form but they believe it occurs as a result of a chemical process during baking, frying, grilling or toasting. It appears to form when food is heated to above 120c. It is not found in uncooked or boiled food.

It is also manufactured for industry and used to make asphalt, glue, dye, paper, fabric and cosmetics as well as to remove impurities in drinking water.

The EU’s European Food Safety Authority examined 22 different food groups known to contain high levels of acrylamide in 23 countries, including Britain, and compared levels recorded in 2007 and 2009.

It found despite the warnings, levels had increased in instant coffee and crispbread and remained the same in almost all the other products. Levels had gone down only in crackers, baby biscuits and gingerbread. The report warns that voluntary measures by the food industry have had ‘limited success’ and concludes that further action is needed.

It concludes: ‘It would be desirable to reduce acrylamide levels further in food groups contributing the most to exposure, such as fried potatoes including French fries, soft bread, roasted coffee and biscuits.’

Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are also urging the public to minimise their risk by cutting down on processed foods, but they say that at the moment there is not enough evidence to justify advising the public to avoid certain foods.

Dr Angelika Tritscher of the WHO said: ‘Acrylamide is clearly carcinogenic. It has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies and we have no reason to think that the same is not true for humans. ‘We don’t know what the risk is and if we tried to quantify it, it would just be a guess which would lead to scaremongering. ‘But it’s very important for us to reduce our exposure. It reinforces the importance of a healthy diet.’

In 2008 the UK Food Standards Agency found high levels of acrylamide in a range of processed foods including Hula Hoops, Ryvita and Pringles. The FSA does not currently advise that people should specifically try to avoid foods high in acrylamide. However, it says that they should seek to cut down on fatty foods such as chips and crisps as part of a balanced diet.


The jab that will help Nature to beat osteoporosis by building new bone

A jab to treat osteoporosis by helping to build new bone, potentially reducing the frequency of treatments for sufferers from once a day to once every three months, has been developed.

Most of the drugs currently used to treat osteoporosis, or brittle bones, simply stop old bone from being broken down by the body. But the new medicine, which could be available in as little as three years, helps by binding to sclerostin, a protein that slows down or blocks the building of new bone. The drug stops the protein working, speeding up the bone-building process.

Its creation began with the study of a group of people whose bones were abnormally strong due to a rare disease called sclerosteosis.

Scientists identified the gene that strengthened their bones and showed that it works by stopping sclerostin from being made. In a trial on more than 400 women the ‘sclerostin-antibody’ jab ‘compared favourably’ with existing drugs.

Dr Roger Perlmutter, of U.S. drug company Amgen, which is developing the drug with a Belgian company, said: ‘We are encouraged by the results of this study.’

Osteoporosis occurs when old bone is broken down by the body more quickly than it is built. An estimated three million Britons are thought to be affected, with 230,000 breaking weakened bones each year and 1,150 dying each month after fracturing a hip.

The women who took part in the trial were given injections once a month or once every three months. Many of the existing drugs need to be taken daily – which patients often find so inconvenient they stop taking them.

A further, larger-scale trial is planned. If it shows the new drug to be safe and effective, it could be on the market in three to five years.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

A pill to beat stress? Hope for cure as scientists discover the protein that causes it

It is not clear how such a drug would be better than existing anxiolytic drugs such as Valium -- and removing stress reactions to threat could have its own problems. But it's only a rodent study so far anyway

A pill that keeps stress at bay could be on the horizon after scientists worked out the brain chemistry that turns a healthy dose of fear into overwhelming anxiety or depression. The breakthrough by researchers at Leicester University could lead to pills that quash such stress-related conditions before they arise.

This would be different from anti-depressants, which are prescribed after a person’s health deteriorates. Treatments which might work when existing drugs fail could also be developed.

The research was inspired by the observation that while most of us experience traumatic events from bereavements to broken hearts, only some people descend into depression or other stress-associated psychiatric disorders.

Experiments detailed in the journal Nature flagged up a protein called neuropsin, which is made in the amygdala, the brain’s ‘fear centre’. In times of stress, the brain makes more neuropsin and this triggers a series of chemical reactions that culminate in a ‘fear gene’ being switched on – and feelings of anxiety.

Blocking the protein in mice stopped them displaying anxiety in stressful situations. The researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.

Dr Pawlak said: ‘Studies in mice revealed that upon feeling stressed, they stayed away from zones in a maze where they felt unsafe. ‘These were open and illuminated spaces they avoid when they are anxious. ‘However, when the proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked the mice did not exhibit the same trait. ‘The behavioural consequences of stress were no longer present.

‘We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its partners may determine vulnerability to stress.’

Although the experiments were in mice, the researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.

Dr Pawlak cautioned that much more research is necessary but added: ‘We are tremendously excited by these findings. ‘We know that all the members of the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain. ‘They may play a similar role in humans and further research will be necessary to examine the potential of therapies for controlling stress-related behaviours.

‘Our discovery opens up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.’

Around one in five people experiences some form of anxiety disorder during their life. The researchers said: ‘Stress-related disorders affect a large percentage of the population and generate enormous personal, social and economic impact.

‘It was previously known that some individuals are more susceptible to the detrimental effects of stress than others. ‘Although the majority of us experience traumatic events, only some develop stress-related anxiety disorders such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘The reasons for this were not clear.’


CA: More hatred of McDonald’s

A lawsuit that seeks to stop McDonald's from selling Happy Meals must be dismissed because parents can always prohibit their children from eating them, the hamburger giant said in a court filing.

The lawsuit claims McDonald's unfairly uses toys to lure children into its restaurants. The plaintiff, Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif. mother of two, claims the company's advertising violates California consumer protection laws.

The Happy Meal has been a huge hit for McDonald's -- making the company one of the world's largest toy distributors -- and spawning me-too offerings at most other fast-food chains. But lately it also has come under fire from public health officials, parents and lawmakers who are frustrated with rising childhood obesity rates and weak anti-obesity efforts from restaurant operators, which are largely self-regulated.

Parham, who filed suit last December, is represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.
In the lawsuit, Parham admits she frequently tells her children "no" when they ask for Happy Meals, McDonald's said in a court filing late on Monday.

"She was not misled by any advertising, nor did she rely on any information from McDonald's," the company said. Should Parham's lawsuit be allowed, it would spawn a host of other problematic legal proceedings, McDonald's said. "In short, advertising to children any product that a child asks for but the parent does not want to buy would constitute an unfair trade practice," the company said.

Attorneys for Parham did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on Monday.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why men's success with women all depends on their hands

I rather like this study -- seeing I exemplify what it says. My ring finger is about half an inch longer than my index finger and I have been married 4 times

Forget witty chat-up lines and splashing on the aftershave. It appears the secret of a man’s attractiveness to the opposite sex lies in his hands. Men whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers are seen as better bets by women, a study found. By contrast those seen as wimpier sorts will have longer index fingers.

It is thought that exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb has a long-lasting effect on finger-length – and on looks.

The study is the latest in a long line to link the shape of man’s hands with his path in life. British, French and Swiss researchers photographed 49 young men and measured the length of their ring and index fingers. They also recorded their voices and took swabs to capture general odour. They then showed a group of women the photos and asked them to rate the men’s looks.

Those whose ring fingers were longer than their index fingers were more likely to win the women’s approval. They were seen as good prospects for both a fling and a long-term relationship.

However, they scored no more highly than the other men in terms of having a sexy voice or ‘attractive’ body odour, the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society reports.

Stirling University researcher Craig Roberts said exposure to testosterone in the womb likely affects facial structure as well as finger length. Having a long ring finger confers a host of other benefits. For instance, scientists believe the longer a man’s ring finger is compared to his index finger, the richer he is likely to be.

They claim he is also likely to be a promiscuous, extroverted go-getter with strong muscles and has a greater likelihood of playing a musical instrument. Unfortunately such men also have a higher chance of ending up in prison, being murdered or going mad.

Previous research has shown women who have ‘masculine’ hands, with long ring fingers, are more likely to be lesbians than those who don’t and display higher levels of aggression – as well as enjoying greater professional success.

To calculate finger length accurately you must measure the distance from the midpoint of the lowest crease at the base of the finger on the palm side to the very end of the fleshy tip.


Calcium supplements are linked to higher heart attack risk in older women

More evidence that HRT is the best strategy for preventing osteoporosis

Older women taking calcium supplements to improve bone strength could be at higher risk of heart attacks and strokes, claim researchers. A new study adds to previous research suggesting extra calcium - with or without vitamin D - may do more harm than good.

Hundreds of thousands of women take supplements because they are recommended for preventing osteoporosis, or thinning bones.

But a research team led by Professor Ian Reid at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, says the practice should be reassessed as it may result in more heart attacks than fractures would be prevented.

They looked at data from Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study - a seven-year trial of more than 36,000 women which originally found no cardiovascular effect of taking combined calcium and vitamin D supplements.

But most women were already taking personal calcium supplements, which may have hidden any adverse effects from being allocated supplements as part of the trial. Prof Reid's study looked at data from 16,718 women who were not taking personal calcium supplements when the trial began.

It found those given combined calcium and vitamin D supplements had a 'modest' increased risk of cardiovascular events. This amounted to around 25 per cent higher risk of heart attack and 15 per cent extra risk of stroke, says a report in

But for women already taking personal calcium supplements at the start of the trial, adding calcium and vitamin D supplements made no difference to their risk.

The researchers believe abrupt changes in blood calcium levels after taking a supplement causes the adverse effect, rather than it being linked to the total amount of calcium consumed. High blood calcium levels are linked to hardening of the arteries.

The report says treating 1,000 people for five years would result in six extra heart attacks, but only three prevented fractures.

The team conducted a further analysis using data on 29,000 people which found consistent increases in the risk of heart attack and stroke with taking calcium supplements, with or without vitamin D.

'These data justify a reassessment of the use of calcium supplements in older people' said the report.

But the British Heart Foundation (BHF) charity said there is insufficient evidence to say calcium supplements definitely trigger heart problems.

Cathy Ross, senior cardiac nurse at the BHF, said 'The study showed there was a modest increase in heart attack or stroke risk but that’s not the same as saying calcium supplements with vitamin D cause heart attacks and strokes, only that there was an increased risk.

'It’s very important further studies are carried out to determine the effects of calcium supplements on heart health. We also need to know whether any increased risk outweighs the benefits these supplements have in treating the debilitating effects of conditions such as osteoporosis.

'There is still not enough evidence to confirm the association between calcium supplements and cardiovascular risk so patients prescribed the supplements shouldn’t stop taking them, but should discuss any concerns they have with their doctor.'


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cleaning 'could be making people depressed'

This is piggybacking on the old "too clean" theory about autoimmune diseases such as asthma and diabetes. I would have thought that now to be a discredited theory but attractive theories never die of course. To repeat: Australian Aborigines usually live in extraordinarily dirty conditions but have HIGH rates of auto-immune disease and early death. Also note the "sample" size below

A growing obsession with cleanliness could be making people depressed, according to scientists. Researchers found that cleaner homes and offices are leaving lower levels of dirt and bacteria which could lead to weaker immune systems and, in turn, brain function being impaired.

Previous studies have linked clean homes to weak immune systems, while others have suggested a child's exposure to bacteria and things like animal hair could help develop a resistance to some illnesses.

The latest study, from Atlanta, suggested that weaker immune systems tend to over-react to dust and dirt in the form of inflammations or allergies which can slow the brain's production of "happy" chemicals such as serotonin and cause depression. The scientists said the rates of depression are far higher in the developed world than in poorer parts of the planet. In Britain, 10% of people claim to suffer depression, while just 1% claims the same in Nigeria, for example.

The research was conducted by exposing 27 patients to the drugs which are used to treat hepatitis C because it causes similar reactions to allergies. Dr Andrew Miller, who was behind the research, said: "We believe the immune system is causing depression. "As people develop and grow up, their immune system develops. "If they are exposed to more bacteria and parasites, they are able to better control the inflammation.

"Nowadays, people's environment is much cleaner and hygienic so our immune system never really learns how to deal with infectious agents."

The research was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.


New heart attack jab even more effective than statins

Rodent data only so far

A simple injection given to patients up to 12 hours after a heart attack or stroke could reduce their devastating effects by more than half, a new study claims.

British-based scientists have produced an antibody that reduces by more than 60 per cent the physical scarring of the heart and brain after an attack. The "milestone achievement" could also be used to stop the body attacking organ transplants.

Professor Wilhelm Schwaeble, who carried out the work at Leicester University, said that it could potentially be the "biggest breakthrough ever" in the treatment of two of the biggest killers in Britain.

Heart attacks and strokes are caused by blood flow being blocked by a clot or a bleed, starving parts of the body further down stream of oxygen. But most of the permanent damage is caused later – when circulation is eventually restored – and a "default of nature" which means the body's own defences attack the oxygen starved cells.

This effect, which kicks in around nine to 12 hours after the attack or stroke, causes massive inflammation and more than 80 per cent of the permanent damage. It is this that often leads to death and massive reduction in the quality of life of stroke and heart attack survivors.

Now the researchers at the University of Leicester have come up with an injection which they claim effectively stops the body attacking the oxygen starved cells. This allows them to start to oxygenate normally and the permanent damage is reduced significantly.

The research has been tested on mice and more advanced mammals and has also been shown to work on human blood in the laboratory. Human trials are expected to begin within two years.

"This is potentially the biggest breakthrough in the treatment of heart attacks and strokes ever," said Prof Wilhelm, an immunologist. "We could not believe what we saw and nor could the cardiologists. What is amazing is that the drug can be given so long after the attack. "Even the slowest ambulance journey in the world is going to get you to hospital within nine hours."

Prof Schwaeble said that the treatment could have even more of an effect than statins, the cholesterol lowering drugs taken by more than two million Britons. Around 200,000 people in Britain die from cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, every year.

The team first uncovered a key molecule in the process responsible for the immune attack. After identifying the enzyme – called Mannan Binding Lectin-Associated Serine Protease-2 (MASP-2) – they then developed a antibody to knock it out. The protein – code-named OMS646 – is so effective only two injections in the first week are needed to completely neutralise MASP-2 while the heart heals itself.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It is anticipated that the first clinical trial will be conducted in the Leicester Biomedical Research Unit, at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Onions help peel off weight, prevent diabetes and reduce blood pressure

If you are a white rat. White rats are not even normal rats. And most of us probably eat a fair amount of onions one way or another anyway -- e.g. in the dreaded hamburgers! Hamburgers couldn't be good for us, could they?

A new Queensland study has revealed onions can combat obesity, diabetes and increased blood pressure.

The research by the University of Southern Queensland biomedical scientists highlights that rutin extracted from onions reversed fat stores in laboratory rats, lowered blood pressure, reversed glucose problems and repaired liver damage.

The research was conducted by Professor Lindsay Brown, Sunil K Panchal, Hemant Poudyal and Thiruma Arumugam and will be published in next month's prestigious Journal of Nutrition.


Diabetes drug could treat breast cancer patients

Research on the effects of metformin is not actually described below

A 10p-a-day diabetes drug could be used to treat breast cancer sufferers, it is claimed. Scientists have developed a new test that identifies patients who could benefit from the cheap treatment. They found that the people whose cancer cells “fed” off high-energy compounds were more likely to see their tumours spread or to die. This meant they could be helped by being given the diabetes drug, metformin, which stops the “fuel supply” for aggressive cancer cells.

Professor Michael Lisanti, from the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit at the University of Manchester, said: “We’ve shown that the saying, ‘you are what you eat’ holds true for cancer. The food cancer cells consume is crucial to how well a patient does and what treatment they need.

“If cancer cells are consuming high-energy food, this makes a tumour more aggressive and harder to treat. However, patients could benefit from metformin, which cuts off this fuel supply. There is more work to do but this test could be an important new way of tailoring treatments to a patient’s needs, across a range of cancers.”

Last year it was reported that metformin was being tested to see if it can stop the growth of lung cancers. In a new paper published in the journal Cell Cycle, researchers from Manchester and Thomas Jefferson University in the US describe their attempts to see if it will also help breast cancer sufferers.

They studied 219 breast cancer patients and worked out which ones had tumours that fed on high-energy foods, known as ketones and lactate, found in healthy cells. The researchers found that the patients whose cancer cells consumed high levels of ketones and lactate were more likely to have their disease return, spread to other organs or die.

This group is most likely to benefit from being given metformin, the standard treatment for Type 2 diabetes that costs as little as 10p a day.

Professor Anthony Howell, Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit in Manchester, said: “It is particularly encouraging that some of those treatments might already be in the doctor’s drug cabinet, and cheap to prescribe. "We have some way to go but we hope that drugs like metformin will be saving lives of breast cancer patients over the next few years.”


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chance find of optical illusion that eases arthritis pain without drugs

85% improvement is about as good as you get -- way above placebo. I guess it's a kind of hypnotism

A trick of the mind could relieve the pain of arthritis, claim psychologists. In a discovery made by accident, people with the condition found a simple computer-generated optical illusion could soothe pain.

Nottingham University academics hope the experiment might one day enable more people to harness their unconscious to tackle ailments. The technology, called Mirage, helped arthritis patients improve the mobility of their hands by halving the pain they felt in fingers.

A small number of sufferers were asked to place their hands inside a box containing a camera, which then projected the image on to a screen in front of them. The technology allowed them to see their arthritic fingers being apparently stretched and shrunk. In fact, someone was gently pushing and pulling their fingers from the other side of the box and the camera created the illusion of huge stretching and shrinking. In 85 per cent of cases it halved the pain.

Mirage was first used as part of a educational project on the way our brains put together what we see and feel happening to our bodies.

Dr Roger Newport, who is leading the research in the School of Psychology, said: ‘The majority of people who come to these fun events are kids – the illusions really capture their imagination and they think it’s a cool trick.’

But it was one of their grandparents who discovered a healing effect by chance. Dr Catherine Preston, who is collaborating on the study and is now at Nottingham Trent University, said: ‘The grandmother wanted to have a go, but warned us to be gentle because of arthritis in her fingers.

‘We were giving a practical demonstration of illusory finger stretching when she announced “My finger doesn’t hurt any more” and asked whether she could take the machine home with her. ‘We were just stunned – I don’t know who was more surprised, her or us.’

The psychologists then recruited 20 volunteers aged around 70 with osteoarthritis to test out the Mirage technology. All had been diagnosed with arthritic pain in their hands and fingers, and were asked to rate their pain during the illusion.

Many of those tested said they felt less pain in their hands and fingers when the image appeared to show them being stretched, while others got relief when the image showed them shrinking. Some said they were in less pain when stretched and shrunk.

In a third of those taking part, the treatment stopped the pain entirely. It was found the illusion only worked when the painful part of the hands was being manipulated.


School Lunch Madness

Back in the Stone Age, I brought my noon meal to school in a Davy Crockett lunchbox. It was made of cheap metal, and had I eaten it, the taste would have been similar to the sandwich inside, usually bologna or tuna on soggy bread. My mother also included an apple (usually thrown, not ingested) and some Mallomar cookies: 800 calories each.

According to an article in The Chicago Tribune, my standard lunch would not have been acceptable at the Little Village Academy public school in the Windy City. The principal, Elsa Carmona, is quoted as saying that her students can either eat the school cafeteria food or "go hungry." Wow! Tough dietary deal.

Carmona went on to say that some parents are morons who allow their children to eat garbage and that is not going to happen on her watch. The Tribune quotes her: "It's about ... the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke."

Many students at the Little Village Academy qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Those who don't pay $2.25 for a meal. Some parents say that $11.25 for the week is far more than the brown bag lunches cost.

Predictably, Carmona's edict caused an outcry, and now she says she was misquoted by the Tribune. Her lunch opinion is not a mandate, just a suggestion, she insists. But this story is not exactly an analysis of the federal budget. It strains credulity that the Trib got it wrong. What most likely happened is that Carmona took some heat from on high and is backtracking.

About one third of American kids are now overweight, and poorer children are the most likely to be in that category. So, educators are correct to be concerned about the nutritional welfare of their students. Every school should be encouraging good health, right?

But forcing parents to buy school food is going too far. This is nanny state stuff. I know that under President Obama the nation is heading in that direction, but it is now time to pause and smell the meatloaf.

Parents are the primary caregivers when it comes to raising children. The school educates kids, but it has no right to dictate lifestyle choices. If there is a problem that impacts a student's ability to learn or socialize, the school has an obligation to bring the situation to the parents' attention. But telling kids what they can eat at lunchtime usurps parental authority.

It is true that some parents usurp their own authority by neglecting their children or acting like nitwits in making decisions for them. But that is the price of a free society. The government cannot legislate good parenting, even though it has spent trillions of dollars trying.

The folks running the Little Village Academy need to wise up about this free society business. In America, we allow freedom of choice. And while kids can't choose their parents and vice-versa, when it comes to choosing the meal plan, parents should rule.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

'Junk meat' diet takes deadly toll in Tonga (?)

Another case of blaming the food rather than the behaviour or the genes. I am 67 now and to my recollection, Polynesians have ALWAYS been big. And there are plenty of them in Australia where there is a very different food offering in the supermarkets. It's true that you can buy canned corned beef in Australia -- I eat it myself at times -- but the cans on offer are small and few, so the Polynesians must be eating something else. And mutton flaps are unknown in Australian shops.

And the other major Pacific island race -- the Melanesians -- are not particularly overweight. They tend in fact to be fine figures of men. Yet both races are poor and have plenty of exposure to Western convenience foods

So why are Polynesians so often huge? I don't know but it's so common that it's probably genetic

On Tonga's supermarket shelves, huge cans of corned beef the size of paint tins replaced traditional fare such as fish and coconuts long ago - contributing to an obesity epidemic that has made the Pacific region ranked as the fattest in the world.

Meat in Tonga almost invariably comes in a tin, whether it be turkey breast, meat loaf, luncheon meat or Spam, which can be bought in a variety of forms including smoked, with chilli or laced with cheese for an extra calorie hit.

The common denominator, says Tonga's Chief Medical Officer, Malakai Ake, is that the "junk meat" is loaded with salt and saturated fats, meaning islanders' waistlines continue to expand.

"This is the biggest issue facing Tonga," he said, citing soaring levels of weight-related coronary disease, diabetes and strokes among islanders.

"Every other day there's a funeral, a next-door neighbour, a relative, a friend. It's always heart disease, diabetes, it's ridiculous."

The Tongan Health Department says more than 90 per cent of the population is classed as overweight and more than 60 per cent is obese.

World Health Organisation data released last year said Pacific Island nations account for eight of the top 10 countries where the male population is overweight or obese.

Experts say economic, cultural and lifestyle factors have combined to make the obesity epidemic, which is an increasing problem worldwide, more acute in the Pacific.

Dr Ake said the traditional lifestyles, where people kept fit through farming and fishing, had given way to a more sedentary existence in recent years and motor vehicles became more readily available. "In my young days we would walk everywhere and go swimming," he said. "Now people use the car to go just a little way down the street."

The Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano, said more needed to be done to combat the obesity problem and his government would look at restricting imports such as mutton flaps - cheap, fatty sheep offcuts popular in the country.

"We have to go back to the old ways, just eating good food - taros, kumaras [sweet potatoes, yams," he said. "It's a matter of saying 'sorry, you have to find an alternative', probably eat fish rather than mutton flaps."


Could a pill made from olive leaves help beat heart disease?

Only small differences observed over a short term -- and with no proper control group. Long-term effects on mortality remain uknown

A pill made from the leaves of the olive tree could be a powerful weapon in the fight against heart disease, scientists say. According to research, the olive pill is as effective as some prescription medicines at reducing high blood pressure. And it also appears to lower levels of harmful blood fats, called triglycerides, known to raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

In a study, patients who took the olive leaf pill for eight weeks saw a significant decline in blood pressure readings and triglyceride levels.

If further studies confirm the powerful effects of olive leaf tablets, they could be used to help patients who struggle to take blood pressure drugs because of their side-effects.

Heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer. High blood pressure is thought to be responsible for 50 per cent of all heart attacks and strokes.

In recent years, studies have shown olive oil can protect the heart by reducing the build-up of fatty deposits inside the coronary arteries. Olives have also been credited with helping to lower the risk of breast cancer, ulcerative colitis and even depression. And it seems the trees’ thin, flat leaves may also be able to ward off illness, as they have high levels of compounds called polyphenols.

These plant chemicals have been shown to help slash the risk of major diseases by helping to protect against the harmful effects of free radicals.

Researchers at the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta, investigated olive leaf extract by recruiting 180 patients with high blood pressure – and splitting them into two groups. One received olive leaf pills for eight weeks. The rest were given an anti-hypertension drug called captopril, which can cause dizziness.

According to the research published in the journal Phytomedicine, systolic blood pressure – the higher reading – dropped an average of 11.5 points in the olive leaf group and 13.7 in the captopril patients. Diastolic blood pressure – the lower reading – fell 4.8 points in the olive leaf volunteers and 6.4 points in those on the prescription medicine.

Those on the olive treatment also saw ‘a significant reduction’ in levels of triglycerides. In a report on the study, sponsored by a Swiss manufacturer of olive leaf extract and PT Dexa Medica, which makes captopril, researcher Professor Endang Susalit said: ‘The leaves of the olive tree have been used since ancient times to combat high blood pressure, atherosclerosis [blocked arteries] and diabetes. ‘The anti-hypertensive activity of the extract was comparable to captopril, and its beneficial effects in reducing triglyceride levels were strongly indicated.’

Doctors said the findings need to be replicated in larger studies before olive pills can be used more widely.

The British Heart Foundation urged those on blood pressure medication not to stop taking their drugs without consulting their GP.

Liquid olive leaf extract is sold, at £28.99 a bottle, under the brand name Comvita Olive Leaf Complex in some Boots stores, as well as Holland & Barrett.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Genes could hold the key to a long and healthy life

How about that!

Longevity genes that may control the speed of ageing have been discovered by scientists. The researchers have pinpointed eight genetic variations that control the production of a crucial hormone which is linked to old age as well as diseases of the elderly.

They believe that by manipulating the DNA strands they could slow down the ageing process and ward off age related conditions.

The genes control levels of the steroid dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate [DHEAS], one of the most abundant in the body and vital to many key functions. Levels of dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate [DHEAS] are known to peak in our mid to late 20s and then decline as we get older. By the time we reach 85, the body contains about five per cent of its peak amount.

Researchers have established links between declining DHEAS levels and diseases such as type 2 diabetes and lymphoma, as well as a decreased lifespan.

A group scientists from across the globe analysed the DHEAS levels and 2.5 million genetic variants in 14,846 people from Europe and the USA. Results, published in PLoS Genetics journal, identified eight common genes that controlled the concentration of DHEAS, with some of those genes associated with ageing and age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and lymphoma.

Researchers say their findings provide the first genetic evidence that DHEAS can cause common age-related diseases or a decreased lifespan. Supplements of the steroid have already been commercially available for the past few years.

Dr Guangju Zhai, the study author from King's College, London, said that while taking it could theoretically slow down the ageing process, it was too early to say for sure how effective it could be. "It is hoped that through manipulation or gene therapy we could slow down the ageing process or the affect of age related diseases," he said.

Dr Zhai and his team now plan to spend the rest of the year looking closely at each gene in the hope of discovering more. "The next stage will be to identify which genes have which function, and which have a particular effect on DHEAS levels. "Once this is identified that could be the next stage in coming up with technology to manipulate the genes and maybe even get the body to increase DHEAS levels itself."

Professor Tim Spector, senior co author from King's said: "For 50 years we have observed the most abundant circulating steroid in the body, DHEAS, with no clue as to its role. "Now its genes have shown us its importance in many parts of the ageing process."


Government and companies 'hoodwink consumers' over healthy lifestyles, according to food freaks

They are in a pet because the government is less Fascist than they are

Big business and the Government could be colluding to “hoodwink consumers” in the name of encouraging healthier lifestyles, academics have warned.

Health policy experts claim that ministers’ attempts to “nudge” shoppers into eating better or taking more exercise, rather than banning junk food, are little more than a “smokescreen for inaction”.

They say that simple attempts to change people’s behaviour ignore the complex range of factors that have led to Britain’s obesity rate rising, from the low price of fatty and sugary food to its availability on every street corner.

It comes after leading charities and pressure groups walked out of a joint Department of Health initiative with food and drink manufacturers and major retailers, saying they were “profoundly disappointed” by limited targets that allowed corporations to dictate public health policy.

In a paper published at on Friday, Prof Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University say it is now widely accepted that obesity is caused by several factors including diet, physical activity, genetics, over-supply of food, marketing and consumer choice.

But they claim that rather than drawing up detailed action plans and drafting regulations to deal with the problem, the British Government alone is focusing on the fashionable discipline of behavioral economics known as “nudge” theory.

The idea is that by finding easy ways for people to choose healthy lifestyles, such as by displaying fruit and veg at the checkout instead of chocolate, ministers avoid the need to pass new laws or restrict commercial activity. It also avoids accusations of heavy-handedness by a “nanny state”.

But the authors claim the theory is overly simplistic, writing: “It dispenses with the complexity of real life contexts and acknowledges only the immediate proximal horizons of consumer choice. At a stroke, policy is reduced to a combination of cognitive and ‘light’ environmental signals, such as location of foods within retail geography.”

They cite the availability of stop smoking packs in high-street chemists and the introduction of London’s bike rental scheme as examples of “nudge-inspired interventions”.

They also point out that a scheme encouraging shoppers to buy healthier food required them to spend £117 in order to redeem £50 worth of vouchers. “The lesson here might be that nudge is a smokescreen for, at best, inaction and, at worst, publicly endorsed marketing.”

The authors concede that social norms have a role in determining consumer behaviour, but ask: “How can ‘nudge’ reshape the agri-food business’s long commitment to lower the price of fat, soft drinks, or high calorie readymade foods or the ubiquitous ‘offer’ of food at every newsagent, station platform, and petrol station?”

They conclude: “Our final worry is that nudge becomes collusion between the state and corporations to hoodwink consumers. At least nannies are overt.”

In a response piece published by the BMJ, Dr Adam Oliver from the London School of Economics argues that nudge ideas are not meant to replace laws but are just “an additional tool to complement regulation by moving society incrementally in a direction that might benefit all of us.”